For years, the Internet has provided a second home to a community of urban farmers diligently tilling their carrots and tapping away on their keyboards about the experience. These people lived with all the peace and prosperity attendant to backyard chickens, rooftop apiaries, and tomatoes canned in plain sight of sidewalks and skyscrapers – until some of their own went rogue.
Pastoralists the blogosphere over erupted in rage this February when the Dervaes Institute, a long-time Internet presence and self-proclaimed authority on the subject of urban farming, sent not-quite-cease-and-desist letters to sixteen other institutions and small businesses, forbidding them from using the term “urban homesteading” without including the fact that the term is the Dervaes' intellectual property.
According to Jules Dervaes, the institute spent three years convincing the US Patent and Trademark Office to let them trademark “urban homestead,” among other terms. But as of this morning, when San Francisco’s Electronic Freedom Foundation posted notice of a petition filed to fight the Dervaes’ “bogus” claim, all signs point to three years wasted.
The Dervaes – Jules and his three grown children– have farmed their family-operated organic plot in Pasadena for more than twenty years, and have documented their journey online (formerly at www.PathtoFreedom.com, now at www.UrbanHomestead.org) since 2001. The institute's first attempt to trademark "urban homesteading" was denied In 2008, but thanks to an epic two-year struggle easily tracked on the PTO’s website their masthead now boasts a big, round "®."
But that may soon change. As of this morning, when SF's Electronic Freedom Foundation posted notice of a petition to fight the Dervaes' "bogus" claim, all signs point to two years wasted.
In an email, Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the EFF, wrote that the filing is “the crucial first step” necessary to (as one Facebook page puts it) “Take Back Urban Home-Steading(s).” Why the awkward spelling? Because, Facebook users can’t say “urban homesteading” either.
In addition to targeting other urban homesteading organizations like the Denver Urban Homesteading agricultural center and Oakland’s own Institute of Urban Homesteading founded by Ruby Blume, the Dervaes contacted Facebook demanding that the site take down pages that use the term. The original pages have been disabled, but new ones urging community members to “dump the Dervaes” quickly filled the void.
One of the Facebook pages under attack was Blume's. She was using Facebook to publicize a new book, co-authored with Rachel Kaplan, called Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living.
In a phone interview this morning, Blume said that she neither learned skills from, nor knew of, the Dervaes Institute prior to the current situation.
But now the Dervaes Institute is on everyone’s radar – and it seems to have overdosed on the attention it so desired to secure.
“I learned about urban homesteading from a vital urban homesteading community in the Bay Area,” she said, adding that until shortly before receiving two separate letters from the Dervaes – an informal notice directed toward her Oakland homesteading school and a formal cease and desist sent to the publisher of her upcoming book – the Dervaes Institute “wasn’t on my radar at all.”
When the Dervaes were contacted for this article, at first they did not pick up the phone. Persistence, however, yielded an answer – not the standard “hello,” but rather, a review from their answering machine chock full of messages from reporters who attempted to call them over the last month, accompanied by pointed interludes of machine’s mechanical “message erased” notification. Plus one for creativity, minus one for passive aggressiveness.
Though attempts to protect what they see as their own intellectual property may have backfired personally, the Dervaes debacle actually brought the urban homesteading community much closer together, in Blume’s opinion. She sees it as a rallying point in a movement that is centered on pride and sharing – the reason why so many people from disparate places came together so quickly on the issue.
“When April Krieger started the Take Back Urban Home-Steading(s) page,” Blume said, “over 1,000 joined in the first day.”
What Blume describes as a micro-revolution merely reinforces the values of self-reliance and community support that urban homesteading teaches.
“They’ve really put urban homesteading on the national map,” Blume said. And along with it – judging by the popularity of a newly recreated and renamed Facebook page – Blume and Kaplan’s upcoming book, which will be published April 10.
But now the Dervaes are on everyone’s radar – including a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise know or care about urban homesteading.
“They’ve really put urban homesteading on the national map,” Blume said. And – she hopes – Blume and Kaplan’s book, which will be published April 10.
Though the Electronic Freedom Foundation has formally filed its petition on behalf of a different set of authors, Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen, as well as the publisher of that duo's 2008 work The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the City, Blume and Kaplan are likewise at the center of the controversy. In fact, before even making it out of the publishing house, their forthcoming book made it onto Wikipedia’s brand-new urban homesteading page.
But for Blume, Kaplan, and all the others who rallied around the Dervaes trademark dispute, publicity was the last thing on their minds.
“Being urban homesteaders is very much about our humanity,” Blume explained. “It’s our birthright to grow and preserve food. We’ve been doing it for millennia. The possibility that it might be taken away is just so against the feeling of the movement. Sharing resources and ideas, that’s what it’s all about.”
Kaplan agrees. In addition to co-authoring the book, the Petaluma resident has worked with community reliance organization Daily Acts to shape the Homegrown Guild, a group committed to dispersing knowledge and hands-on assistance among its hundreds of members.
“We share information like we share bounty,” Kaplan said. “Our job is to keep inspire one another to keep raising the bar.”
The co-authors, who met over 20 years ago as members of San Francisco’s Mission art scene, wove a broad yet intricate guide, with Blume providing the artwork and photographs as well as some of the more nitty-gritty how-to’s, and Kaplan producing the bulk of the writing, or what Blume describes as the “why-to.”
Nearly every aspect of their collaboration was fortuitous. Blume had been approached by several publishers to produce a book – something she realized she “didn’t really want to do.” At the same time, Kaplan, knowing nothing about the potential book deal, looked up Blume with her own ideas about writing a book.
The pieces fell into place, and a partnership was born. At its heart, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living is about cooperation – perhaps the Dervaes should pick up a copy.
Pick up a copy yourself at the following Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living book launches:
April 14, 7 p.m.
2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
Modern Times Bookstore
April 27, 7 p.m.
888 Valencia, SF